North Island: Rotorua, Waitomo, Matamata, and Taupo

Y’all, New Zealand is where it’s at. I’m definitely coming back to NZ, hopefully sooner rather than later.

I decided not to rent a car since it would be expensive for just one person to rent, especially with the additional “under 25” fees. That being said, I am definitely renting a car on my next trip. It takes inordinately longer to get anywhere by public transportation compared to driving yourself, which is my only complaint about NZ.

First stop: stinky Rotorua. Rotorua is an area with a lot of geothermal activity and the place smells like a sulfur palace. I went to a park with free thermal foot pools before meandering around Lake Rotorua. I also went on a ziplining trip with Rotorua Canopy Tours, which was a blast. It was fun to be in the tree tops, zooming from ‘treehouse’ to treehouse. The longest zipline we went on was 220m. Rotorua Canopy Tours uses part of their proceeds on a project to repopulate the forest with native NZ birds. To do this, they first need to rid the area of pests like possums, rats, and stoats–all mammals introduced by Westerners. The next step will be to build a fence that extends several feet into the ground to prevent burrowers from entering the sanctuary. Once the fence is built, they’ll introduce birds like kiwis, fantails, wekes, etc.

It was on the ziplining tour that I finally learned about the silver fern. This fern is on anything and everything NZ, from passports to hats to magnets to rugby jerseys. The fern looks like a normal fern from the top, but if you flip it upside down and sunlight hits it, it gleams a bright silver. Back in the day, Maori used the ferns to mark the path through the forest since it stood out against the other foliage. It’s supposed to symbolize unity and coherence; kiwis moving all in one direction, together.

In the afternoon, I walked around an active geothermal area and the sulfur smell amplified 1000x. It was like all of Earth’s farts concentrated in a single location. I tried to walk to the Whakarewarewa (Redwood) forest, but turned back when the sidewalk disappeared. Instead I took the bus to the forest and enjoyed walking some trails in the redwoods. I prefer California’s redwoods though. They’re somehow grander. In the evening, I went to the Tamaki Maori village to learn about the Maori culture. It was interesting, but it’s not something I’d do again. One interesting thing is that the traditional Maori greeting is to touch noses together twice, which symbolizes the sharing of breath and friendship.

The following day, I went to the Waitomo and Ruakuri Caves as well as Hobbiton! The Waitomo glow worm cave tour was pretty cool. It was eerie to see these little dots of light on the ceiling of the cave, like thousands of stars whose constellations I didn’t recognize. The Ruakuri Cave tour was much longer (2 hrs) than the Waitomo tour (45 min). It was going well until we came to a chute that led from where we were standing all the way back to the ground above us. The chute was used to transport concrete mix, workers’ lunches, and other building supplies into the caves when the caves were renovated years ago. Looking up into the chute, all I could see was a tiny speck of light, very far away. Turns out we were 60 m underground. This is when I had a minor panic attack. I can deal with 30 m under the ocean, but 60 m underground is something I am not comfortable with at all. I started to feel the space close in around me. It felt too tight. I couldn’t concentrate on the rest of the tour and the last hour was agonizing because I felt like I was trapped underground without enough air to breathe. It’s going to be a long time before I go on any more cave tours.

After the caves, we went to Hobbiton Movie Set, which I absolutely adored. A lot of people think it’s an overpriced tourist attraction, but I thought it was worth every penny. It’s an idyllic place..like it could be straight out of a movie! 🙂

Some fun facts about the LOTR movies:

  • The hobbit holes are all made at different scales, which allows for forced perspective. For example, to make Gandalf seem taller, they would place Gandalf next to a 40% hobbit hole and Frodo next to a 90% hobbit hole.
  • They hired an eagle (and its American trainer) during filming. The eagle’s sole job was to fly a circle around the set to scare off any wildlife before each filming session so it would be quiet enough to hear the actors
  • One line at the end of Return of the King talks about plum trees in Hobbiton. NZ plun trees are too tall though, so they planted a different tree at the right size and wired on plums, branches, and leaves. It only has a 3 sec appearance in the extended version.
  • One actor’s job was to walk back and forth between the washing line and the hobbit hole everyday for two weeks to make tracks in the grass so it would look like a worn path.

I love the hobbit holes’ circular doors and windows. I wonder if I like them so much because it’s more ‘natural.’ I mean natural in the sense that Nature doesn’t make sharp corners. In nature everything is rounded. Only in manmade things do we see sharp corners like on tables, counters, doors, etc. (Sharp corners and edges do make packing and shipping more efficient.) But maybe I’m attracted to Hobbiton’s rounded doors and rounded windows because they channel some deeper connection with nature? Nah, probs not. But I do like them!

My next stop was Taupo. Lake Taupo is NZ’s largest lake by surface area. I walked from my hostel to Huka Falls, which was nice, but not extremely impressive. In Taupo, I just rested and stocked up on groceries for my volcanic hike, which will be in the next post.

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